Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jane Austen's Twelfth Night

by Susanne Dietze

Every Christmas by around 11 AM, I look at the wrapping paper strewn over the family-room floor and I experience a little bit of letdown. All the planning, shopping, and decorating are over, and I feel a little, well, sad. I sometimes think it’s too bad we don’t keep Christmas a bit more like Jane Austen did.

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...Image via Wikipedia
I’m not referring to donning empire-waist gowns and hunting for greenery in the snow with waistcoat- wearing gentlemen, although that would be lovely: Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived in Georgian England, an era I adore. But my interest in keeping Christmas like Jane Austen has nothing to do with a celebration of her novels, or my delight in her time period. It’s more that up until the Victorian period in England, the religious and festive celebrations of Christmas lasted twelve full days, from December 25 until January 5 – Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the church remembers the magi’s visit to Bethlehem. Now that’s my kind of Christmas, long and lingering! No letdown for twelve days!

For Jane Austen, those twelve days were rich in parties and visits and merrymaking. For her fellow countrymen, the celebrations were sometimes made a bit more riotous by the Halloween-like theme of masquerading -- or reversing roles -- that was pervasive in Twelfth Night parties for centuries. In medieval and Tudor England, one lucky person (sometimes by design and sometimes selected by finding a bean baked into his slice of cake) earned the role of Lord of the Misrule (or Lord of the Bean, or Bean King), and he then presided over the festivities. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night follows the theme of role-reversals, as Viola dresses as a man and Malvolio, a servant, dreams of becoming a nobleman.

The idea of the world turning upside down for Twelfth Night endured through Jane Austen’s day. Children were included in Christmas balls, masques were fashionable, and role-playing games offered popular entertainment. Somewhat like a modern-day murder mystery party, guests at role-playing parties drew cards inscribed with names like “Signor Croakthroat” and “Madame Topnote.” Sometimes the names were paired, male and female, and the guests sought out their counterparts for the evening. Sir William Heathcote attended one such Twelfth Night party with Jane Austen when he was a boy, and he later recalled that she’d drawn the card for “Mrs. Candour,” fulfilling her role “with great appreciation and spirit.” I can just imagine her speaking about others in a stage whisper, remarking on their clothing or the behaviors she observed!'Image via Wikipedia

More intimate gatherings enjoyed Twelfth Night masquerades and frivolity, too. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny, wrote to her old governess of her family’s Twelfth Night festivities, 1806, describing the roles taken on by each member of the family (Fanny was a Shepherd Queen that night). The family made merry in the orange-tree-decorated library, playing games like snapdragon, in which participants pluck raisins out of a bowl of flaming brandy, and bullet pudding, which involves a bowl of mounded flour topped by a bullet. Participants “cut” the "flour cake" and the person whose “slice” causes the bullet to fall from the top earns the disgusting-sounding job of retrieving the bullet with his mouth. But Fanny enjoyed it immensely, just like my kids probably would. Although I'm guessing Fanny wasn't the one who had to clean up the mess.

Festive foods were still consumed through Twelfth Night, including plumcake, warming soups, and Christmas puddings (according to her own recipe, Austen’s mother always prepared an extra pudding to have on hand for guests). And then there was the steady flow of alcohol. It’s interesting to note that many scholars believe the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was not, as some suggest, a coded ditty of Catholic theology, but rather a party game, testing the memory skills of the inebriated. There’s no conclusive proof either way, but no matter how the song came about, it’s been around for a few centuries, and today is “eleven pipers piping,” thank you very much.

By 1870, the practice of Twelfth Night was stopped and gradually, the festivities of Christmas ended for many at bedtime on Christmas Day. Those of us from liturgical churches still enjoy a twelve-day Christmas season with a bit of greenery and carol singing through the New Year, but for all intents and purposes, Christmas is over December 25.

Yet the message of Christmas – Jesus come to save sinners – isn’t limited to a day, or even December. And thanks to that realization, I’ve been inspired to keep Christmas going just a bit longer this year, in my heart and in my house. Jane Austen wouldn’t recognize my Nativity scene or my tree, but they’re both still up and being enjoyed until I pack them away on Twelfth Night.

So Merry Eleventh Day of Christmas, everyone!

My main source for this post was Jane Austen’s Christmas: The Festive Season in Georgian England, compiled by Maria Hubert, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1996.

When did you take your Christmas decorations down?

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  1. I took them down a few years ago.
    But I daresay, I might be the only one that will eat plum pudding tonight and toast both you and Jane with a forkful!

    There is something quite delicious about all those festivities and merry-making. Well, for the middle and upper classes anyway. Unfortunately more work for the servants!

    As for me, I tend to take the 12th night idea and make it a month of overeating. Does that suffice?

  2. Twelve days of Christmas sounds lovely. Although I don't have to be inebriated to lose at trying to sing that song. I always mess it up. Too many drummers and lords-a-leaping and milk maids. I think I remember most of the gifts, just not the day they're supposed to be given.

    I took my Christmas stuff down the 27th. Although to be fair, I think it was up longer over all, because I put it up Thanksgiving day.

  3. We pretty much always keep the celebration alive from December 24th until January 1st. So I guess that's more like eight days. During that week we do a lot of visiting with friends and family and have a lot of extra family activities and game nights since the kids are off from school and all their afterschool activities. Usually husband takes the week off work too, because he never uses up all his vacation time.

    We also leave up decorations until a week or two after New Years. And we put them up the weekend after Thanksgiving. So they're more like our "winter decor." I try not to take them down until I'm missing my normal decorations so that it seems worthwhile.

    Really, the part of the holiday I don't like and have pretty much given up on is all the pre-Christmas partying while we still have normal life going on. We used to end up having 5-10 parties while still doing school, work, dance, drama, sports, etc... I just say no to those at this point.

  4. I think more holiday parties should be held in january when we've all gone from sizty to zero mph.

  5. Deb, you crack me up. So no tree? This year as we were decorating the tree, I felt a bit humbug-like and acknowledged what a lot of work it was. But it's wonderful anyway.

    Enjoy your plum pudding! I found a recipe where you can microwave (on defrost) individual-sized plum puddings and I thought of you. I'm going to give it a go next year. The recipe looks much yummier than some of the 200-yr old ones I've seen, which call for suet. Eee-eww.

  6. Good morning, Lisa! I think I have the order of the drummers and pipers and ladies in the song now, after years and years...but I prefer the Veggie Tales version with the Polish Christmas foods: "...and a boiled potato topped with dillweed."

    Can I just say again how lovely the blog looks? I love the colors, and the little New Year clock off to the right makes me very happy. :-) Thanks for your hard work to make the Inkwell sparkle.

  7. Dina, I hear you. Between the kids' concerts and people's open houses and pageant rehearsals and school parties etc, the week before Christmas vacation is absolutely killer. My son had a district-level competition this year on the 15th and I thought, really? Who scheduled this for the 15th? I go into Christmas week wanting to nap. No wonder I never got out of my sweats this Christmas.

    It sounds like you had a good time this year. I love game nights. We were introduced to a new game this year called Dice Capades, a mash up of Minute to Win It, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, charades, and the Dare portion of Truth or Dare, I suppose. With about ten different types of dice. It was nuts--I ran around the house, people were doing pushups, we recreated Star Wars...we laughed a lot.

  8. My tree and associated stuff came down on Jan. 1, but my dear elderly friend used to keep her tree up until Easter, redecorating it for all the various liturgical holidays between now and then. I loved the idea, but couldn't get my fam to agree.
    I did keep my snow globes out this year. It's still winter, after all!

  9. Niki, your friend's idea sounds really cute. What a neat idea.

    How many snow globes do you have? Sounds like quite a collection. I've seen some gorgeous snow globes and I can see why people collect them.

  10. I feel a Pride and Prejudice marathon coming on...

    By orders of the King (my husband), the tree comes down on January first. No ifs ands or buts.

    He leaves for the Missouri legislature every year and knows that I will cease to notice that we have a needle shedding fire hazard in our living room, so it must be done.

    Adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow...

  11. Ooh, Cheryl, will it be the Colin Firth BBC version? I may just join you. A thousand miles apart, that is.

    Yeah, real trees tend to get a little messy (and brown) don't they? I miss having a real tree, but one of my kids has asthma and didn't do very well with pine in the house.

    Enjoy your P&P!

  12. Thanks for the post, Susie. For me, trying to keep the celebration going for 12 days helps avoid some of the inevitable letdown.

  13. Cheryl,

    I rarely get out of the 19th century myself so I'm all for a P and P marathon. I will gladly watch both Colin and Matthew.

    Okay, ladies. It's true. I haven't put a tree up for at least a few years, but I have done a few assorted decorations. Not one this year!

    It was quite enjoyable and relaxing. I went to my daughter's for Christmas with family. That did the trick. We didn't even have ham.

    But I made plum pudding so I'm still on Susie's Christmas card list.

  14. Oh, Girls. I forgot to mention that I went and saw The King's Speech with Colin Firth as George VI. It was soooo good. AND during the previews I found out that they're doing a new version of Jane Eyre. Squeee!!!

    So excited!!

  15. Hi Karl! Thanks for popping by today! Happy 11th day of Christmas...one more day to go!

  16. Lisa, I can't wait for the new Jane Eyre! Too bad we can't have a girl's night out and all go together.

    I've been wanting to see The King's Speech. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  17. Gasp, Deb, no HAM?

    We ate bean dip straight out of the crockpot :-) But later on we did indeed eat ham for Christmas dinner, for the first time in several years.

    I wholeheartedly approve your plum pudding efforts. Sally forth.

  18. Hey Susie, I never really thought of Twelfth Night so thank you for the info.

    Up here, many people celebrate Ukrainian Christmas. That would be Christmas Eve this Friday night and Day on Sat. Out will come the kolbassa, holupchi, perogi, etc. Yum, yum. I love the food but would rather buy it than make it.

    Great post, Susie.

    Anita Mae.

  19. Oh Anita Mae, I do like perogis. Yum. My boys would be very into the kolbassas. Me, not so much.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I had a lot of fun putting it together.

  20. No ham.

    But I had pork on New Year's Day so we are all safe for another year. (I finally did look into the background of that tradition, but suffice to say I always have had pork on the 1st)

    Lisa - I've been squee-ing over the new Jane Eyre for months. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
    I'm glad to hear that you liked the King's Speech.

    Peirogies? What bliss! Though I don't think we'll have them at our Jane Eyre premier night. We must eat something totally English and Gothic.

    For being such an Anglophile, I should not admit that our family had three days of Christmas dinners: Italian, Mexican, and Thai.

    But I brought the Scottish Shortbread so we didn't completely fly in the face of tradition...

  21. Lovely post, Susie. I think I've confessed before that I know next to nothing about Jane and her era in England. But I always enjoy learning from your posts.

  22. Hey Suzie! Well, I know just a wee bit more than nothing, but I love this stuff.

    For our Jane Eyre premiere night, Deb, we should definitely have something Englishy and boiled. Well, maybe not. Maybe tea sandwiches.


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